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Tech institute expands to meet emerging workforce demands

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A truck built by Mack Trucks in Macungie sits in the training area where students at Lehigh Career
& Technical Institute learn how to drive trucks.
A truck built by Mack Trucks in Macungie sits in the training area where students at Lehigh Career & Technical Institute learn how to drive trucks. - (Photo / )

As skilled workers continue to be in strong demand for the manufacturing, distribution and warehouse industries, truckers are in need more than ever to transport products across the nation. One local resource is looking to capitalize on the training opportunities such growth represents.

At Lehigh Career & Technical Institute in Schnecksville, students manufacture materials out of electromechanical, welding and machining equipment, drive dump trucks and other heavy equipment on five acres of land or operate industrial trucks and forklifts as they learn about supply chain logistics.

Officials said the comprehensive instructional approach is aimed at giving students the skills they need by practicing the roles they will inhabit in their careers.

It’s a workforce model that looks to provide companies in the Greater Lehigh Valley with the type of labor pool they require, particularly in the fields of manufacturing, mechanics, heavy equipment, transportation and construction.

With nearly 10 million employees in the U.S. trucking industry, the demand for qualified drivers continues to grow. LCTI offers a truck-driver training program that pairs one student with one instructor.

“We do the one-on-one driver training and it gives them, we think, a very good foundation for learning how to drive those big rigs,” said Jan Klevis, director of post-secondary and workforce education for LCTI – a career and technical school for high-school age students as well as a workforce education school for adults.

The curriculum is nationally certified by the Professional Truck Driver Institute, an organization whose endorsement carries a lot of weight with students looking for a job, according to Randy Zimmerman, training coordinator at LCTI.

The technical school has been certifying truck drivers with the organization since 1993 and training truck drivers to get their commercial driver’s license since 1971, Zimmerman said.

Truckers are not only needed to haul freight for logistics companies but are essential for the construction industry.

“On construction sites, you need flatbed trailers to move equipment,” Klevis said. “Many of the truck drivers have to know how to operate forklifts because they have to load and unload their own trucks.”

Also fueling the rising demand for truck drivers is the booming Marcellus shale natural gas resources in western Pennsylvania and Ohio. LCTI has trained about 50 drivers who work in the Marcellus shale industry, Zimmerman said.

The growth of this industry has been so strong that it allowed LCTI to establish a satellite campus in truck-heavy Westmoreland County near Pittsburgh. The need for truckers in the natural gas industry is quickly outpacing supply; in southwestern Pennsylvania, businesses need about 20,000 truck drivers, Zimmerman said.

As more truckers are on the road, more mechanics will be needed to handle repairs.

Diesel truck mechanics are in strong demand, said David Rubright, workforce education coordinator at LCTI.

All of this demand is placing a stronger emphasis on LCTI’s role in helping students get placed with jobs immediately upon graduation at a starting salary near $45,000 for a CDL driver.

About 90 percent of the students who complete the CDL program are placed in a job, according to Zimmerman. For the heavy equipment operations program, the placement rate is about 80 to 85 percent.

“The impact on the economy is tremendous,” Klevis said. “Anyone can find a job if they are in the right field and have technical skills.”

Students get the chance to practice driving with semi-loaded trailers to replicate real-world experience and also learn different forms of parking and backing up.

“We will test them on our own equipment,” said Michael Hanlon, lead instructor at LCTI. “They usually test in the same vehicle they train in. It really caters our training to what’s required of them when they get out there.”

With three state-certified examiners, about 150 to 175 students complete the CDL training program each year.

“We do have transportation companies calling us on a weekly, daily basis about the need for truckers,” Zimmerman said.

LCTI also performs a lot of third-party testing for business and industry and customized training for companies.

While many young students participate in the trucking program, many employees who worked in manufacturing and are not quite ready to retire are also going into the trucking industry.

And with more military veterans returning home, many are entering the trucking industry and finding jobs, Zimmerman added.

LCTI offers options for students to combine CDL and forklift programs or participate in its logistics/transportation technology program.

The combination programs have been a big success for getting the contractors to pick up the students for employment, said David Fidler, lead heavy equipment instructor coordinator.

“We do training for utility companies throughout Pennsylvania,” Fidler said. “It’s something that’s needed.”

The contractors that LCTI sees have been taking a lot of students from the combination programs, Fidler said. Students in these programs learn how to do a lot more with heavy equipment, he added.

Manufacturing jobs also are in big demand, but instructors cannot get students trained fast enough to feed this growing sector, according to Rubright.

LCTI has increased its enrollment in seven manufacturing programs, from 254 students two years ago to 380 students today, said Jack Pfunder, president and CEO of Manufacturers Resource Center, an organization based in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, that helps manufacturing companies with funding, expansion and training.

“The companies go out to the floors and work very closely with the teachers and students,” Pfunder said. “We try to give them [students] tours. Apprenticeships are hard in high school.

“We are doing everything we can to figure out how to get companies involved.”

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Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh.

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